ORLANDO, Fla. — In preparation for allowing consumers to shop in its stores with their smartphones, Kroger Co., Cincinnati, is running a six-store test of personal shopping technology, including handheld scanners, smart produce scales and other systems.
Kroger's strategy is to master a personal shopping platform under its control in order to get “a leg up on the emerging world of the smartphone,” said Brett Bonner, senior director at Kroger, who discussed the test at the U Connect Live conference here on June 3.
The centerpiece of the technology platform is an internally developed handheld shopping device called PAL (personal assistant and liaison) that is similar to the Scan It! handheld scanners that Ahold USA offers shoppers in more than 280 Stop & Shop and Giant stores.
Kroger's touchpad PAL unit allows shoppers to scan and bag purchases as they move about the store, provides a running total of purchases, and features a store help button. In the future it will suggest alternate cost-saving brands, sale items and comparable house brands. “We're looking for partners to commercialize it,” said Bonner.
For loose produce, shoppers use the PAL to scan a bar code on a specially designed weighing scale; then they scan the GS1 DataBar on the produce item and weigh the item on the scale, which wirelessly sends the final price to the PAL device. This removes the need to enter a price code on the scale for each produce item, as is the case in the Ahold system.
Under development for the test is an “intelligent shopping cart” or “rolling U-Scan” that weighs each product to verify that it was scanned — much like the U-Scan self-checkout lanes used by Kroger.
Store employees in the test stores are also equipped with low-cost “task management” scanning devices. “It lets us know where everybody is in the store for better customer service,” Bonner said.
The PAL device is sufficiently low cost — about $50 — that Kroger plans this fall to allow shoppers at one store to take them home. At home, shoppers would scan coupons and items they need to replenish, building a shopping list.
In the future the scanner will be able to monitor prescription regimens for pharmacy customers to assure that medication is taken on time and to avoid over medication and drug interactions. Plans also call for the device to help in product recall tracking and to track product ingredients so that customers can avoid products that may cause an allergic reaction.
Before Kroger can transition from the PAL device to mobile phones, some technological hurdles need to be overcome, Bonner said. For example, the poor signal coverage of 802.11 networks inhibits smartphone use. To fix that, Kroger has set up an 802.15.4 local area network in the six test stores. “We chose a different network to punch us through the noise,” he said. The network also provides a “tight integration” of mobile devices, POS terminals and produce scales.
Other mobile phone issues include their slow scanning capabilities, the shrink risk associated with self-scanning, the complexity of giving smartphones access to a store's POS system, and security concerns associated with making product and pricing information available to shoppers.
But mobile phones will offer some powerful advantages. Bonner said, highlighting digital coupons, which will eliminate paper, control fraud and validate coupons to the GTIN level. To take advantage of that, Kroger is prepared to scan the GS1 DataBar on coupons, he added.
Ultimately, shoppers will perceive the retailer as responsible for ensuring that their cell phones work in the store. “The retailer will take the hit if their smart phone doesn't work well,” said Bonner.